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‘Quiet quitting’ isn’t really quitting, but it is forcing employers to adapt

Clocking out at 5 p.m. on the dot, only doing your assigned daily tasks, limiting chats with colleagues and no working overtime.

These are the distinctive features of “quiet quitting,” a term coined to describe how people are approaching their jobs and professional lives differently to manage burnout.

The phrase — which isn’t actually intended to lead to a resignation — exploded into the popular lexicon last week when a TikTok video went viral. 

“I recently learned about this term ‘quiet quitting,’ where you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” creator Zaid Khan said in the video, which has since amassed 3.4 million views.

The phrase is resonating, too. While the words “quiet quitting” are loaded, evoking images of a slacker or ne’er-do-well for some, others say that the approach frees up time to spend with family and friends, or to take care of oneself. 

In short, it’s a renewed commitment to life beyond the workplace. But behind the trend is a starker reality.

Employees want to be fairly compensated for additional time and work, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates occupational burnout and mental health issues. The ball is squarely in the court of employers, managers and executives, experts say.

New buzzword, same gist

While the term “quiet quitting” may be a new invention, the mentality behind it is not. The phrase “work to rule,” for example, describes a labour action in which employees strictly perform the work laid out in their contract, without taking on additional work.

Meanwhile, the pejorative “retired in place” — or RIP — suggests that a worker is mailing it in, doing just the bare minimum to keep from getting fired as they wait out retirement benefits. 

“I’m sort of chuckling over it because, to me, it’s common sense,” said Sarahrose Werner, a retired tax preparer in Saint John, who “quietly quit” herself roughly 30 years ago. 

quiet quitting isnt really quitting but it is forcing employers to adapt
Sarahrose Werner, a retired tax preparer from Saint John, chose to scale back from work in her 30s, after a 50-to-60 hour work week left her mentally exhausted. (Sarahrose Werner)

“I’ve learned from my own experience that … constantly going above and beyond may get you a few extra dollars if you’re being paid hourly, but it does not necessarily win you the loyalty of your employer,” Werner said. 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a major economic movement, The Great Resignation, which saw people leaving their jobs or switching professions in droves, as they re-evaluated their relationship to work during a life-changing health crisis.

A May 2022 survey by RBC Insurance suggested that more than one-third of recently retired Canadians aged 55-75 had retired sooner than they planned. Another third decided to retire sooner because of the pandemic.

While Statistics Canada reported in March that a Great Resignation hadn’t really taken off in this country, the agency said that the third quarter of 2021 saw a 60 per cent increase in job vacancies compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Both quiet quitting and The Great Resignation indicate a marked cultural shift from the early- and mid-2010s, when “hustle culture” paved the way to “grinding” and “girl-bossing” — ideas that prioritized work over everything else, with the belief that such effort made employees more desirable to managers, therefore helping them climb up the corporate ladder faster and generating more income.

WATCH | Canadians are switching professions because of the pandemic:

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Pandemic burnout spurs workers to reconsider careers

4 months ago

Duration 4:28

From working long hours to battling Zoom fatigue, there have been plenty of people who have experienced burnout over the course of the pandemic. Many of them are reconsidering their careers as a result — prioritizing their mental health above everything else.

As the pandemic shuffles along into its third year, experts say remote and hybrid models are here to stay, and employees are re-evaluating how much time they spend commuting, working overtime and generally investing in low-pay, low-reward jobs.

“I think what’s happening a lot is people — a lot of younger people in particular — are taking jobs that are more transactional,” said Tim Magwood, the CEO of 1-DEGREE/Shift, a human resources consulting firm in Toronto. 

“So it’s just about a job and pay, and there’s no real learning,” he said. “There’s no real sense of purpose.”

Most employees have seen that they “work in systems” that do not reward constantly going above and beyond, said Karen K. Ho, a freelance business and culture reporter based in Richmond Hill, Ont.

“Hustle culture has been repeatedly shown to be only beneficial for corporations and their managers, through bonuses, through increased productivity, through increased revenue and profits and the like,” said Ho.

The employees driving increased productivity at the lower level are making the same amount of money, she said, all while being told that “the baseline for meeting expectations is exceeding expectations.”

Onus is on employers

Some companies are requiring that employees return to working in the office, which in itself has become a point of contention. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for example, made headlines in June when he told company employees that they must return to the office or lose their jobs.

“We have seen that people can be productive at home,” said Ho. “We have seen that it is beneficial for a lot of people who are neurodivergent, or have disabilities, or even have caregiving responsibilities, whether it be elderly adults, like parents, or young children.”

quiet quitting isnt really quitting but it is forcing employers to adapt 2
While Statistics Canada reported in March that a Great Resignation hadn’t really taken off in this country, the agency said that the third quarter of 2021 saw a 60 per cent increase in job vacancies compared to pre-pandemic levels. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Werner, who chose to scale back in her 30s after a 50-to-60 hour work week left her mentally taxed, said an employer once suggested she bike and not walk to work so that she could put in more hours.

“This was long before anybody talked about work [and] used the term work-life balance,” she said.

The term quiet quitting has also garnered criticism, even from those who generally favour the idea behind it, because it suggests that the employee is falling short, rather than the employer.

According to Ho, quiet quitting is a misnomer: It doesn’t account for the fact that people are watching their grocery bills, fuel costs and housing prices go up, often without so much as a salary increase, she said.

“You’re literally stagnating as a result of not earning more, not being promoted — and that’s why a lot of people are leaving jobs,” she said.

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The term ‘quiet quitting’ has garnered criticism, even from those who generally favour the idea behind it, because it suggests that the employee is falling short, rather than the employer. (Submitted by the Lawson Health Research Institute)

Some employees are advocating for policies, benefits and working conditions that strengthen work-life balance. During the pandemic, advocates in Ontario lobbied for a “right to disconnect” bill. Now in effect, the legislation obligates most employers to have a written policy, outlining how workers can disengage after hours.

But critics say it doesn’t work as well as it should, with a glaring loophole that allows employers to take advantage by vaguely wording their policies.

Executives who expect employees to fit into rigid standards for work ethic after the pandemic-driven workplace shift are in for a rude awakening, according to Magwood. 

“We really need to adapt, and one-size-fits-all just does not work anymore,” he said.

Werner agrees that the pandemic has given people the space to rethink their lives.

“With the baby boomer generation retiring, there’s simply fewer workers to take their places,” she said. “I think young people are smart enough to realize that that puts their labour at a premium and that it gives them a bit more latitude in making choices.”

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